Modern musicals try to dominate audiences, unlike their far superior American forebearsby Herb Greer / August 20, 1998 / Leave a comment
Remember the old saw: when something is too stupid to say, you sing it. That’s not true today. Now you make a West End musical out of it, viz. Andrew Lloyd Webber’s latest, Whistle Down the Wind. This show is so bad in so many ways that I do not propose to dwell on it. And yet, and yet-this monstre th??trale does have a certain interest: it illustrates almost perfectly why so many new shows are inferior to so many older (usually American) musicals.
We have seen plenty of these classics revived in recent years. The Royal National and Opera North mounted wonderful productions of Guys and Dolls, Show Boat and others. Even an adaptation such as Carmen Jones, a straight commercial production, not only made the average new musical look sickly, but was superior in many ways to its original model. More recently we have been offered the latest Broadway production of Show Boat and Opera North’s revival of Gershwin’s Of Thee I Sing, which-although only a step up from a script-in-hand staging-far surpassed Lloyd Webber’s noisy bombast in terms of wit, theatrical pace, and pure heart-lifting entertainment. Alhough lacking the glitzy (somewhat insect-like) carapace of Chicago, the Gershwin and Jerome Kern spectacles overflowed with a molten alloy of joy which almost none of the newer work can match. At the National, Trevor Nunn’s revival of Oklahoma! is doing this again.
Are these observations no more than curmudgeonly nostalgia? I doubt it. The score of the Lloyd Webber show gives a deadly warmed-over impression, drowned in banality and bathos; the opening “hymn” inadvertently evokes a number from a long-ago show called Espresso Bongo, in which phony pop star religiosity was sent up in a glutinous paean to the singer’s mum. Lloyd Webber’s Whistle Down the Wind is a gob-smackingly crude, crass remoulding of a film whose success lay in delicate handling of a conceit which inched along a high wire over a swamp of pseudo-religious nonsense. Lloyd Webber dives into the swamp and wallows in it.
This suggests an author (and work) adrift, lacking any moral or theatrical centre of gravity and-despite the religious theme-any gravitas at all. What remains is a cloddish, risible fake piety. Curiously enough, another new show displayed the same hollowness. Infinitely superior to the Webber disaster, in writing, technical polish and performing bravura, Chicago is often funny, with a hard bright cynicism which dominates the audience, pulling nervous laughter out of them by showbiz virtuosity. But the show has nothing to say and nothing about it matters.
Why does a spectacle such as Show Boat or Oklahoma! or Of Thee I Sing make newer work look so shabby or merely slick? It may have something to do with a change in the relationship of show to audience. When Kern and Gershwin and Rodgers and Hammerstein wrote shows, they showed a certain generosity towards the audience; they wanted them to engage actively with what was happening on-stage.
Now, after half a century of watching shows, I find that this sense of play in audiences has faded. The game is quite different. A sort of anaesthetised passivity has invaded the stalls, the circle and the gods-an unconscious wish to be dominated. Lloyd Webber and his contemporaries play all right, but less with human experience than with huge sums of money, huge productions, unwieldy masses of material. (Chicago is atypical: a relatively spare and inexpensive show; the reason is that it did not start on Broadway). Above all, these shows are conscious of power.
In a critical piece on Harold Pinter (Prospect, November 1996) I described something similar to this in the “legitimate” theatre: the self-infatuated lust of the playwright to do something to his chic fans, who squirmingly embrace the result. But the West End musical audience does not grovel obsequiously like Royal Court punters; its passivity is a less conscious affair, more a simple acceptance of this huge resounding thing which booms into the auditorium and carries them along: not a sado-masochistic theatrical voyage towards some elusive truth or other, but simply a fairground ride on a flood of sound and effects. This is not an issue of entertaining song and story, but a kind of Schw?rmerei which picks up and cocoons the punter for an evening and (with luck) soothes him or her like a huge tranquilliser. This is a more intense and all-consuming version of what used to be called escapism, but it is less refreshing than a short vacation from real life; rather a substitute for living, a narcosis like the numbness of soul which comes from watching too many soaps on television.
But at least these new monsters have not disabled audiences from responding to the life-enhancing qualities of fine work from another, theatrically less-clouded, time. If the success of those revivals means anything, it is that the older appetite for a more subtle relationship to the show is still strong enough to affect new work-if creators of new shows can only tune into it.